The early portion of the college basketball season has not been kind to the Pac-12. Arizona has fallen from preseason No. 2 to unranked after three straight shocking losses at the Battle 4 Atlantis. UCLA is in the news for all the wrong reasons. Oregon went 1-2 in the PK80 and needed overtime to beat DePaul (DePaul!). Cal dropped a game to Chaminade and Stanford already has five losses, including ones to Portland State and Eastern Washington.
There’s a lot of basketball left to be played, but the Pac-12 doesn’t have much to feel good about right now. Arizona State is an exception.
The Sun Devils broke into the polls at No. 20 this week for the first time since James Harden was on campus back in 2009. They beat No. 21 Xavier (a win that looks even better after Xavier dropped Baylor on Tuesday) and also gave Kansas State its only loss of the season.
ASU has scored at least 90 points in every game. They have an offense that ranks in the No. 10 in the country in efficiency. The defense still ranks outside of the top 200 in efficiency ... so who knows how long this will last. But for now, Arizona State is fun and explosive and arguably the most pleasant surprise of the early season.
In only his third year, Bobby Hurley unquestionably has the program trending in the right direction. So, how is Arizona State doing this?
Never discount a group of senior guards
Looking for a recipe for a surprise team? How about not one, not two but three great senior guards? That’s how Arizona State is winning right now.
Tra Holder is the best kind of college basketball story. He entered the program as an unheralded recruit (only a three-star prospect, per ESPN and Rivals) but has gotten better every season. Now he’s in the midst of a breakout senior season after dropping 40 points on Xavier last week:
He’s joined in the backcourt by Shannon Evans, who followed Hurley from Buffalo. Evans is a natural facilitator who has turned into a knockdown shooter this season. Quietly, Arizona State has one of the most dependable veteran backcourts in the country.
The third guard is Kodi Justice, who is taking his game to new heights as a senior. Justice never averaged double figures in scoring his first three years in school, but he’s putting up 15.5 points per game right now.
The three senior guards are each shooting at least 44 percent for three point range, which is a) incredible, and b) the main reason why ASU has the second best effective field goal percentage (63.4 percent) in the country at the moment.
The freshmen are making an instant impact
Romello White has been as good as advertised in his college debut after being ruled academically ineligible last season.
White is a 6’8, 220-pound forward who is a bully scoring in the paint. He’s averaging over 15 points per game on nearly 60 percent shooting. His greatest strength is getting to the foul line, where he’s averaging 9.4 attempts per game. That’s the third best foul-drawing rate in America, per KenPom.
True freshman Remy Martin is also giving Arizona State some good minutes. He popped off for 13 points in the win over Xavier as a 6’ guard who can create his own shot off the dribble. Martin, who chose ASU over UCLA, was also a consensus top-100 recruit who should be a productive player for the Sun Devils for a long time.
We’ll include junior college transfer De'Quon Lake here, too. All Lake is doing right now is scoring 12.7 points per game on 80 percent shooting from the field. At 6’10, he gives Hurley a true big who can finish inside, rebound and provide some semblance of protection at the rim.
Reinforcements are on the way
It’s amazing to think Arizona State is doing this without two players who should be a staple in the rotation the rest of the season.
Mickey Mitchell is a 6’7 forward who transferred by way of Ohio State. He’ll be eligible in December and will give ASU an aggressive rim attacker who can help out on the glass.
Freshman Kimani Lawrence is even more intriguing. The 6’7 wing is the fourth-highest rated recruit in the history of the program. He’ll be a versatile defender and transition threat who has started to make strides as a shooter. He’s recovering from foot surgery and should be eligible for Pac-12 play.
Arizona State Hurley has another strong class coming in next year, led by Canadian two guard Luguentz Dort. 247 Sports rates Dort as the second best recruit in program history behind Harden. Not bad.
The Sun Devils are still far from a sure thing this season. That defense ... needs work. Upcoming games against St. John's, at Kansas (where no one wins) and hosting Vanderbilt will show how good this team really is heading into conference play.
The important thing is that this team is just a lot of fun right now. Hurley has breathed new life into a program that has made the tournament only once post-Harden. Given the way he’s recruiting, this only feels like the start of something bigger for Arizona State.